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In January 2004, five young Israeli men received unusually harsh sentences for their refusal to perform military service. Rudi Friedrich talks with Adam Keller about the reasons behind the refusers' hefty punishment.

A growing phenomenon?

In January 2004 Rudi Friedrich met Gush Shalom activist and member of the Refuser Parents Forum Adam Keller at his home. A few days earlier five refusers, Haggai Matar, Matan Kaminer, Noam Bahat, Adam Maor and Shimri Tzamaret were sentenced to prison terms of one year by a military court - after more than 14 months' detention already - for their refusal to “serve” in the Occupied Territories. Rudi asked Adam to discuss the situation and relevance of the refuser movement.

RF: How have the army usually reacted to refusers in the past?
AK: Before the attitude of the army changed, pragmatic officers in the army-- who know that the phenomenon of refusing exists--had to make decisions about what to do about it. They see it as a problem of discipline and don't really want to give it too much publicity.

So the basic attitude of the army towards troublemakers was: send this soldier to prison for one month. If he is still giving us trouble, send him to prison again for another month. When you repeat it three or four times without any change in the behaviour of the refuser, it seems that this person won't be a good soldier anyway. So he is sent to the Unsuitable Committee to discharge him.

The procedure is essentially the same in the case of refusers as it is if someone isn't disciplined, disobeys orders, or runs away again and again--without any clear reason to justify it.

The army followed this procedure until the end of 2002 and this is the attitude the five refusers expected. But at the end of 2002, more hard-liners with an ideological background were promoted within the Israeli army. They said that this phenomenon [of refusers] is threatening the army and can't be tolerated.
RF: The treatment of the Five, now sentenced, refusers is very harsh. What reasons do you see for this change of the strategy by the Israeli army?
AK: Yes, the basic reason was the letter of high-school graduates, so-called Shministim. There was never been such a big group of conscripts refusing [military service] and going to prison. That worried and threatened the army. To understand the special background for this you have to see how the army reacted in the past. Since the time of the Lebanon war, refusing was considered as a reservist phenomenon. The first movement, Yesh Gvul (There is a Border), as well as Courage to Refuse were basically movements of reservists. During the Lebanon war it was a very big and conspicuous refusal movement of reservists. 2,000 signed the common petition not to serve in Lebanon from 1982onwards and 200 went to prison. A lot of media attention followed, a lot of discussion. Three years after the start of the movement, in 1985, the army left most parts of Lebanon, but kept the so-called “Security Zone” in the south. At the same time they [also] stopped sending reservists to this area, and maintained the occupation using only conscripts.

For 15 years, until 2000, there was not a single case of a Lebanon refuser. So, the army developed a doctrine that they send only conscripts, or at least as few reservists as possible, into an area which is politically sensitive.

They also used this doctrine in the West Bank. Only a few reservists get the call-up for their regular one month [service], with one exception: during the operation “Defensive Shield” in April2002, when they conquered West Bank cities, they sent special call-ups to reservists for longer periods.

The army were very afraid that there would be many refusers especially because Courage to Refuse had started its campaign some months before. But the army could count on special circumstances. A horrible suicide attack during Passover created the conditions to legitimise the operation as a justified war against--and finally to defeat--terrorism. The general public accepted this propaganda. About 40 reservists were in prison during this time, something that was little publicised. On the contrary, the media reported on reservists who enrolled voluntarily if they weren't called-up.

Still, one month later the army faced serious problems. They wanted to start a second operation to conquer the Gaza Strip. There was the feeling that Gaza has a higher concentration of refugee camps with very strong links to Hamas. Conquering Gaza could have cost many more casualties. On the other hand the Gaza Strip is already surrounded by a fence and there was not a single case of a suicide attack coming out of Gaza into Israeli cities. The reservists felt, after the propaganda of the first operation to defeat terrorism, that this second one would be more tough and less justified. The number of reservists who were prepared [to go] began to crumble. The minister of defence still published a very bombastic and nationalistic order for the operation,called “Defending our Homes”. But the operation was cancelled 24 hours before[it was due to take place].

Since then the army is holding the West Bank with a minimum of reservists, mostly conscripts. It is counting on con-scripts being politically indifferent people who will obey orders. But now the army has to face a big movement of conscripts. More than 200youngsters declared to their refusal to become soldiers. The high command could no longer rely on them [conscripts] and faced real problems. That was the essential background to the decision at the end of 2002 to begin court martial proceedings against the five refusers.

And they even knew and accepted at the time that this would create much more attention on the topic. The military court is like a real court, with an audience,lawyers, testimonies. For the army the young refusers were too much of a risk to be allowed to get off with a small punishment. You could call it a compliment.
RF: What kind of effects do you think the refusers movement has on Israeli society?
AK: The struggle of the Five pays off: their courageous stance has inspired the wave of refusal to serve in the occupied territories which is now shaking Israeli society. And there is an increasing acceptance of the refusers movement. The whole spectrum, the different approaches, the Five, the pilots, the refuseniks, are[all] supporting each other.

If I look for the reaction of the right wing, they are getting tired. After the pilots went public in September 2003 the right wing was creating a very big outcry. In a campaign they claimed that the pilots were traitors and should be boycotted, that they and every supporter should be outcast. Members of the Knesset were saying that the El Al airline must fire the refuser pilots who are working for the company. If El Al refused to fire them, they contemplated a comprehensive boycott on all [the company's]flights. After a petition of university lecturers in support of the pilots was published, right wing students demanded that all these lecturers should be boy-cotted. It was a kind of holy rage.

After this tumult followed the trial of the Five, which became more and more prominent. Later on, members of the crack commando unit Sajeret Matkal were publishing a similar letter to the pilots. You could find the same reactions [from the right] but much more tired. I think the right wing is feeling: this is becoming too much. They can't seriously suggest that this phenomenon is only a disease which can be cut out. It is becoming widespread. One sign of this was an article of Alex Fishman. He is a military commentator of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot and is known as an unofficial spokesman for some generals who are considered to be relatively moderate, sometimes dissident to certain decisions of the government. Fishman wrote on the front page of the newspaper: “Refusal is no longer a marginal phenomenon, it is here to stay whether we like it or not.”
RF: What happened during the court martial of the Five?
AK: The strategy of the Five and the defence lawyer was to have a proper political trial. In fact, all five were making long speeches against the occupation. They explained why they do not agree with the occupation and can't serve in the Israeli army. They gave quotes from human rights organisations etc. And they did not deny that they are members of an organised group, which is asking other conscripts and soldiers to do the same.

Just before the court started, general Gil Regev met some parents of the Five. Gil Regev is head of the “manpower”department of the army. He offered that, if these young people would agree to become normal soldiers, the army would give them very good conditions. They could work in hospitals in civilian clothes, not be required to carry weapons or to participate in military training. But the important point was: They would have to accept becoming soldiers, privates in the Israeli army. The Five didn't choose the easiest way, they didn't try to get light punishment. But they are prepared for a long struggle.

The answer and the main point of the prosecutor in the court martial was: They aren't conscientious objectors. “They are engaged in civil disobedience and sedition. They seek to undermine discipline in the armed forces and the authority of the duly constituted government in the state. They are ideological criminals who must be doubly punished, since they not only break the law but altogether deny its authority. The very fact that they are sincere in their beliefs, idealistic in their way, must be counted against them--since that is exactly what may tempt others to follow in their way.”But, you have to see, the presiding judge, colonel Avi Levy, gave space for political speeches in the court. This was more than we expected. In fact, the prosecutor wanted to deny this at the beginning of the case. He wanted to just focus on the question of disobeying orders. Everything else would have been irrelevant. In the end, [the judge] accepted the arguments of the prosecutor: “We recognise that the accused do feel a moral and ideological revulsion about taking part in an army which they perceive as perpetrating manifestly immoral acts. But the act of refusal is derived not only from this revulsion but also--and perhaps mainly –from the wish of the accused to change public opinion in general, to effect a change in the views and in the behaviour of those who are about to go into the army as well as of conscripts and reservists, and finally to cause a change in government policy and bring about an end to the occupation.”

The army can tolerate somebody [...] if it's not going to be public and nobody joins them. The army also can accept a total pacifist who is against every war. But a conscript or soldier who seed refusal as a political act, trying to push the army to influence the policy of the government,forcing the elected politicians to change policy under threat of massive disobedience in the army--this is totally unacceptable and will be punished severely.

Note: For a full English/German language version of this interview, contact Connection eV (p19).
To support the Five, visit http://www.refuz.org.il/
See War Resisters' Internationals reports on the court martial at http://wri-irg.org/news/2004/israel0204-en.htm
Contact details for CO, refuser and related groups can be found on p32.